Oil spills endanger public health, impact drinking water, devastate natural resources and may disrupt the economy. Practices and procedures that work to prevent oil spills must therefore be both developed and implemented. The costs associated with spill prevention are often significantly less than the costs associated with spill cleanup, fines, and possible civil liabilities.1
One of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) top priorities is to prevent, prepare for, and respond to oil spills in the Waters of the United States (WOTUS). As a result, the EPA developed and continues to maintain a series of programs for the prevention of, preparedness for, and response to discharges of oil. Under Spill Prevention, Control, and Countermeasures (SPCC) regulations any facility with oil storage of 660 gallons in a single container, a total capacity of 1,320 gallons of aboveground storage, or 42,000 gallons of below ground storage, and a reasonable expectation that a spill could reach WOTUS is required to develop and implement an oil spill prevention and response program.2
The EPA and Army finalized and published (January 18, 2023) a Rule establishing a definition of WOTUS, where the Rule is operative in all jurisdictions of the United States except Idaho and Texas. Below is a summary for WOTUS, but for more information take a Deep Dive.
To determine whether there is a reasonable expectation of a spill reaching WOTUS the owner/operator should analyze the topography and geography of the facility relative to nearby rivers, streams, creeks, lakes, and other waterways. Consideration should also be given to the fact that ditches, gullies, and storm sewers can transport an oil spill to nearby WOTUS. Man-made features such as dikes and berms should not be included in this assessment; best practices assume man-made structures are not present when deciding whether a facility is subject to SPCC rules.2
A major goal of the SPCC regulations is to help facilities prevent a discharge of oil to WOTUS. One of the main components of the program is the requirement that facilities provide adequate containment. The definitions of primary and secondary containment come from the SPCC regulations. Primary containment comprises containers that store oil and act as the first line of defense against spills. Part of primary containment is storing material in containers specifically designed for that substance; for example, flammable materials belong in containers and tanks that are compatible with flammable materials. Secondary containment provides another layer of protection if primary containment fails. Examples include double walled tanks, bulk storage containment, dikes, and berms. Sized (or specific) secondary containment must be able to hold the total capacity of all containers plus sufficient freeboard for precipitation. Generally, industry uses 110% of total container capacity as the minimum required secondary containment capacity. However, in rain-prone regions, this measurement may not be enough to provide adequate secondary containment. A more accurate estimate could be obtained by using the amount of precipitation generated by a 24-hour 25-year storm event. The National Weather Service publishes information on their website, including maps, databases and other tools, that can be used identify the precipitation amount for a 24 hour 25-year storm event for any facility within the United States. Operators bear the responsibility to determine the additional containment capacity based on variations in local weather.3
Outside of primary and secondary containment requirements, SPCC regulations include other provisions to prevent oil spills. These include requirements for overfill prevention mechanisms for tanks and drip pans, sorbent materials and curbs for areas where oil transfers occur.
However, the most important part of SPCC regulations is the human element. SPCC regulations require a plan to prevent and to control spills, as well as to conduct countermeasures including remediation for any spills. SPCC plans should include information for mobilizing resources to mitigate impacts to WOTUS.
SPCC regulations also include guidelines for prevention technologies that must be in place and operating procedures to be followed to prevent oil spills. Other important aspects include visually inspecting aboveground equipment utilizing industry standards and training employees on the content and actions required under the SPCC plan.
Spill reporting for a facility subject to SPCC regulations may be complex. Oil spills to WOTUS must follow two federal spill reporting regulations and may also be subject to various state and local agency spill reporting guidelines or specific conditions applied to a permit. The two federal regulations are the Discharge of Oil Regulation (40 Code of Federal Regulations Part 110) and the Oil Pollution Prevention Regulation (40 CFR Part 112).
Under the Discharge of Oil Regulation, when a facility discharges a “harmful quantity of oil” to WOTUS, the owner/operator is required to immediately notify the National Response Center. Per regulatory definition a harmful quantity is any quantity of oil discharged that: violates state water quality standards, causes a film or sheen on the water’s surface, or leaves sludge or emulsion beneath the surface. The Discharge of Oil Regulation is commonly known as the “sheen” rule. Under this regulation, reporting oil discharges does not depend on the specific amount of oil discharged, but instead can be triggered by the presence of a visible sheen created by the discharged oil or the other criteria described above.4
Under SPCC Oil Pollution Prevention regulations the owner/operator of a jurisdictional facility is required to report certain spills to the Regional Administrator of the EPA when:
- more than 1,000 U.S. gallons of oil is discharged to WOTUS in a single event; or
- more than 42 U.S. gallons of oil in each of two discharges to WOTUS occurs within any twelve-month period.
One of our experts summarizes SPCC regulations and their role in the oil and gas industry.
Spill Prevention Control and Countermeasure – Jim Ladlee – Penn State
Anytime oil is stored or transported, there is the possibility of leaks or spills. Spill prevention, control, and counter measure, or SPCC regulations, include provisions for the prevention of preparedness for and response to oil discharges occurring inland. The goals of these regulations are two-fold. First, to contain discharges of oil. Second, to prevent oil from reaching navigable waterways and adjoining shorelines. The Environmental Protection Agency’s authority for these regulations come from the Clean Water Act of 1972. The regulations occasionally change through amendments, but the program, as a whole, provides guidelines for certified SPCC plans, including procedures, methods and equipment requirements. SPCC regulations cover all facilities that store, transfer, or consume oil in any form, including animal fat and vegetable oil.
They apply to above ground storage facilities with total capacity greater than 1,320 gallons or buried facilities greater than 42,000 gallons, where there is a reasonable expectation that a potential spill could reach US waterways. A large storage facility that was not near any waterway may not be subject to SPCC regulations. However, a best practice is to always be prepared for spill prevention and control. The regulations apply to a wide range of facilities, including production, storage and refining. The provisions exclude inter-facility pipelines, ships and barges and rail-cars and tanker trucks transporting oil between facilities.
SPCC plants must have containment strategies to prevent accidental discharge, as well as counter measures to be implemented in the event of a worst case scenario. There are two categories of containment. Primary containment is the first line of defense. It can be as simple as storing flammable liquids in containers that are specifically designed for them. Secondary containment is designed to work when primary containment fails. Examples would be double walled tanks or bulk storage containment, such as dykes made of soil, metal, concrete or other material. The secondary containment must hold the full capacity of any container, plus the volume of possible rainfall. Secondary containment also serves to catch any spills where oil transfers between containers or to and from containers and transportation vehicles.
Since the beginning of the SPCC program, an entire industry has grown up around spill prevention and control. Many products exits on the market to meet SPCC requirements. These include sorbent materials, impermeable sheeting, drip pans and curbing. Even the best containment and prevention strategies can fail. All facilities must develop a plan that describes normal operating procedures to prevent spills, the control measure onsite to prevent spills from migrating toward waterways and counter measures to contain and clean up spills. In most cases, these plans must be prepared in accordance with sound engineering principles and be certified by a professional engineer.
SPCC regulations are a critical part of petroleum production. They help facility operators avoid endangering public health, impacting the environment, and disrupting regional or local economic development.
1. EPA, 2010, Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasures (SPCC) 40 CFR Part112, A Facility Owners Guide to Oil Pollution Prevention, EPA 540-K-09-01.
2. EPA, 2023, March 6, Spill Prevention, Control, and Countermeasure (SPCC) for the Upstream (Oil Exploration and Production) Sector | US EPA. https://www.epa.gov/oil-spills-prevention-and-preparedness-regulations/spill-prevention-control-and-countermeasure-19.
3. EPA, 2023, January 12, Secondary Containment Calculation Worksheets | US EPA. https://www.epa.gov/oil-spills-prevention-and-preparedness-regulations/secondary-containment-calculation-worksheets.
4. EPA, 2006, Oil Discharge Reporting Requirements, How to Report Oil Discharges to the National Response Center and EPA, EPA-550-F-06-006, https://www.epa.gov/sites/default/files/2014-06/documents/spccfactsheetspillreportingdec06-1.pdf.
Images: “Floating oil containment boom” by Mps197 via Shutterstock; “EPA and Army Corps of Engineers logos” by EPA, Army Corps of Engineers; “Brazos River” by HuecoBear, CC BY-SA 3.0